One of the hardest things for us as human beings is the F word. No, dear one, not the word that immediately springs to mind when you hear that term. I am talking about forgiveness.
I have struggled with the F word my whole life, and I suspect you have too. The writer Anne LaMott calls earth “forgiveness school.” That term sticks with me because it so sharply reminds us that we all, in every day of our lives, have the opportunity to give and to receive forgiveness.
Why is forgiving people so hard when it is so necessary to our emotional health and well being? And why is it even harder to forgive those who have hurt the people we love?
When I was a high school counselor, a student named Sarah came to me and confided that she was pregnant. She was living with her grandparents, who had taken her in because neither of her parents were able to support her at that point. She hadn’t told her grandparents of the pregnancy yet, hadn’t sought medical attention, and was trying to figure out what to do next. My advice to her was to tell her grandparents, because they were going to find out anyway and the delay would cause more problems that would only make the situation worse. I told her that her grandparents loved her and that they would help her. She then asked if she could have them come to school so she could tell them with me present, for support. I grudgingly agreed since it was my advice to tell them, after all.
Her grandparents came to school the next day, thinking we were having a visit about graduation requirements. Sarah didn’t waste much time getting to the point. She announced to them that she was pregnant, in love with her boyfriend, and planned on keeping the baby. There were several horrible moments of uncomfortable silence. I watched grandpa and was seriously concerned he might be having a stroke. Breaking the silence, grandma began to sob. Grandpa found his voice, although it was shaky and uncertain. He spoke slowly, and his words were icy. “You will no longer live in our house. When you get home today, we will have your things packed. We don’t care where you go.”
Sarah’s grandparents got up and left my office without a word to me or Sarah. And Sarah, who had been mute through their response, began to sob as well. Through her tears, she said her boyfriend had already told her she could stay with him if she needed to. And me? I felt like I had betrayed them all. It was as if everything I had told her was a lie, and her situation seemed a thousand times worse. I told her how sorry I was that this had all happened, and I hoped things would improve in time. I thought I had probably earned the title of “Worst Counselor Ever” that day.
A couple of weeks passed, and I received a call from the main office to inform me I had a visitor. Sarah’s grandma had come to see me. She apologized for the scene in my office, and said that being blindsided didn’t bring out the best in she or her husband. She added that they were making reparations with Sarah, had asked her to come back to their home and were trying to help her boyfriend get a better paying job since he would have a child to support. I told her how glad I was that they changed their minds about keeping Sarah out of their lives, because she really needed their support. I have never forgotten what she said next.
“If we hadn’t decided to forgive Sarah, how could I ever live with myself? We love her so dearly. She wasn’t trying to hurt us but the pain she gave us that day nearly killed my husband. I couldn’t sleep nights not knowing if she was safe. When you love someone, forgiveness is the only option if you want to have any peace.”
This family went on to work out their less- than-perfect situation, but isn’t that what all of life looks like? That is often how forgiveness works– you let go of the pain, the hurt, the sheer horribleness of whatever someone else has done in order to move forward. Whether it’s your spouse, a child, a sibling, a friend, a coworker– we must forgive their trespasses.
Some of you will argue that some offenses are unforgiveable, things like infidelity, betrayal, abuse, the deep and intentional wounding both physical and emotional. I would never argue that a person should stay in a relationship or situation that causes them harm. Sometimes holding onto anger feels so good and so right. But we all know forgiveness heals us far more than it helps the person we are forgiving. Humans were not designed to carry the burden of bitterness for our entire lives. And forgiveness doesn’t always happen quickly; sometimes, it takes years. For a long time I was unwilling to forgive my father for the way he treated my mother when she was dying of cancer. He often acted like she was a big inconvenience to him, and was very uncaring to her in almost every way possible. After her doctor told us she only had hours to live, I went home to relay the information to my father (he wasn’t at the hospital, and rarely ever was while she was there). I gave him the news, and his response was to shrug his shoulders. That’s it. No words, no sadness. I was so angry I took a swing at him, but luckily I missed. I told him he made me sick and I meant it. He shrugged his shoulders again, and walked away. I wish I could say I worked through this quickly, but I didn’t. I dwelled on it and replayed the incident like a bad scene from a B movie. Over time I began to realize that my father was just who he was. He was flawed, and my bitterness towards him would never change that. I was poisoning myself with my own bitterness and hate, but that would never change what happened. I did forgive my father, and in retrospect, I am also pretty sure I did some things growing up that I needed forgiveness for as well. I was never as close to him as I was my mother, but was able to have a relationship with him for all the years until his death. I am thankful for those years, the relationship, and the forgiveness.
The year 2020 has been a crash course in forgiveness school. Maybe all of the hard things we have been enduring can make us a little better at forgiveness, at understanding that we are all flawed human beings, and that we all have probably botched a few things during this unprecedented year. As a Christian, Jesus commanded us to forgive one another. Even if you’re not a Christian, please know that forgiveness, while one of the hardest, most unselfish things a person can give, also gives you redemption– something we all need. I wish I had a five point plan or a step by step guide to help you with the F word, but I don’t. I just know it is something we must do if we want to live in peace with each other in this oh so imperfect world.